This week a briefer than usual recommendation for a shorter than usual book – `The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain’ by Lloyd Alexander.  His children’s books are regarded as Classics in America but aren’t as well known in Europe as they should be. I have always loved Alexander’s five-volume `Chronicles of Prydain’ , which began with `The Book of Three’ (1964) and culminated in `The High King’ (1968). Prydain is an invented country based on Welsh myth and legend. Alexander also wrote eight short stories set in Prydain which were first published as a collection in 1973. `The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain’ is still in print in paperback but strangely doesn’t seem to be available as an ebook. As the stories in this collection are all prequels to the main sequence, it is a good introduction to Alexander’s magical version of Wales.

Long before there was Harry Potter, there was Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, a boy who grew up with his readers during the course of five books. At the start of the series, foundling Taran is living in a cottage with ancient enchanter, Dalben and retired warrior Coll. Taran’s job is to look after an oracle-giving pig but he dreams of becoming a great hero. The small kingdoms of Prydain are frequently under threat from forces of evil led by Arawn, the Lord of Annuvin – the Land of Death. Taran soon gets all the danger and excitement he could wish for. During his adventures, Taran makes some unusual friends, meets a flame-haired princess, encounters all manner of supernatural beings and objects, and eventually discovers his true destiny. Taran is portrayed in depth and with emotional realism but the rest of the cast tend to be defined by a few outstanding characteristics and mannerisms, such as hairy Gurgi’s constant longing for `crunchings and munchings’ and would-be bard Fflewddur Flam’s weakness for embroidering the truth. They are vivid and memorable but somewhat one-dimensional. This works better in the short stories than it does in the novels.

In the wonderful compendium of Welsh myth and legend known as `The Mabinogion’ (see my post of November 2012), there are stories within stories to explain the origins of notable places, people and things. The stories in `The Foundling’ are mainly of this kind. The title story is about Dalben and explains his upbringing by three remarkable sisters and how he acquired one of the world’s greatest treasures – `The Book of Three’; while `The Truthful Harp’ is a full account of how reluctant monarch Fflewddur Flam (don’t worry, there is `Prydain Pronunciation Guide’ at the end of this book) came to be saddled with a lie-detecting harp. So, if you already have a favourite character in the `Chronicles of Prydain’, you will probably find out more about them in this volume.

In the Prydain novels and stories, Alexander uses numerous elements from Welsh myth but the storylines are his own. He’s respectful of his source material but also has great fun with it. Among the joys of his style are the sudden shifts from the solemn to the humorous. In `The True Enchanter’ for example, the narrative pompously states that `because Angharad was an enchantress of long and lofty lineage, it was forbidden her to wed any but an enchanter’. Then lively Angharad (mother of Princess Eilonwy) comments, “That is the most ridiculous rule I’ve ever heard of. It’s vexing enough, having to curtsy here, curtsy there, smile when you’d rather frown, frown when you’d rather laugh, and look interested when you’re actually bored to tears. And now, is my husband to be chosen for me?” The rest of this tale is a charming love story which argues that a true enchanter is someone who inspires people to use their own imaginations – as Alexander does.

In the Author’s Note at the start of this collection, Alexander says that the stories `relate matters bearing not only on the history of Prydain but on our own times as well.’  `The Smith, The Weaver and the Carpenter’ champions artistic integrity in the face of greed, while `The Sword’ shows how one selfish misuse of power begins a grim spiral into evil. This isn’t a collection full of twists and surprise endings. The stories develop in the way you might expect but that feels right because they are conveying truths that every generation needs to hear. In the title story, the mighty enchantress, Orddu, comments that hardly anyone asks for wisdom and yet, `the odd thing about wisdom is the more you use it the more it grows’.  `The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain’ is full of traditional wisdom. Any takers?